While most people express a desire for world peace, few have any idea how to bring it about. Some get involved in politics or community service; others support organizations working for conflict resolution. Many say a prayer for peace in their worship services. For the past 37 years, people from all 50 U.S. states as well as many foreign countries have spent the July Fourth holiday in Santa Fe National Forest near Cuba, New Mexico to pray for world peace.
There is a Native American legend which says when the earth is broken and the land is dying, a tribe of many colors and creeds, like the rainbow, will rise up to heal the planet. These special people would be known as the Rainbow Warriors.
In 1972, a group of about 2,000 free-spirited individuals decided to hold a gathering for world peace and took the name, the Rainbow Family, in honor of the legendary clan. A man who goes by the name Barry Plunkar helped organize the first gathering, which was to include an hour of silence for participants to meditate for peace.
"Now there is not any one place on this planet where you could impose any sort of authoritative silence on any of these people," he says.
Only half of those present kept quiet. So the organizers made the silence voluntary and suggested that those who would like to participate should gather in a circle. Soon Christians and Krishnas, Buddhists and pagans, Jews and atheists were joining in the quiet celebration, holding hands in a meditation circle of peace. Over the years, the hour of silence has expanded, and now the circle lasts from dawn until noon.
"So there's no way to impose silence. It has to come from the community," Plunkar says. "That's self-discipline on the part of individuals."
Hour of silence grows into week of activities
The silence isn't the only thing that has grown over the years. The event itself has also grown, from a weekend to a full week of impromptu workshops, discussions and activities, with as many as 20,000 participants.
Plunkar says people often begin camping in the forest as much as a month early to prepare for the gathering, while others stay after the event on clean-up duty.
"We all share one thing: We show respect to one another, with the idea and the vibration that if we truly had any love or respect for one another, we would not lay [power] trips on one other," Plunkar says. "We are not above one other; we're not below. We're sort of living a natural equality."
Because of this natural equality, Rainbows believe in self-responsibility and govern by consensus instead of through a hierarchy. There are no leaders, because that would be exercising control over another. There are no rules, except to treat each other with respect. Therefore, there are no membership requirements. Anyone who wants to be a Rainbow is a Rainbow.
Participants bring their talents
Denny, a man with long, blond dreadlocks, says while this may sound like it would inspire chaos, quite the opposite is true.
"We're known as the world's biggest unorganized organization, so everybody has to take it upon themselves to decide what their duty is. I personally love cooking, so I come with my talent and whatever I can, and a lot of people here have better talents to, say, make a tarp over the kitchen than, say, I do. So everybody comes out and brings whatever talent they can."
While some people dig trenches for latrines, others carry logs to construct foot bridges on forest paths, and still others erect tarps to shield sleeping quarters from the harsh sun. It's become a tradition to name the various campsites, so participants set up tents among the trees in areas called "Camp Kitten," 'Love Militia" and "Sushi Tribe."
It's a massive volunteer effort to feed the Rainbows during their gathering. Denny is one of a few dozen people running the kitchens, which serve free food. Like the campsites, the kitchens have catchy names. You can grab a bite to eat at sites like "Instant Soup," "Jesus Kitchen" and "Lovin' Oven." And many of the attendees take colorful Rainbow names, as well.
Food, music, merriment
Turtle Girl is a marketing executive from Wisconsin. Dressed casually in a sweatshirt and khakis and sporting a cowboy hat, she kneads sourdough for bread near a large earthen oven. She says she's learned an important lesson from attending gatherings.
"Do we all know how to be kind to each other and treat each other with respect, no matter what walk of life you're in? That's what we should all be trying to do."
Musicians playing everything from folk music to rap wander through the forest, engaged in spontaneous jam sessions. Each day, people gather in the meadow in small circles for workshops on everything from herbal healing and tai chi to drumming and juggling. An outdoor market is set up along a path through the forest. Rainbows display bumper stickers, crystals, candy and other wares on blankets. Goods are purchased through barter and trade, not money.
A special area called Kid Village is set up for the smallest Rainbows. Medicine Story, a Wampanoag Indian from Massachusetts, uses his talent as a counselor to organize special games and music for kids.
"It's like a summer school in trying to figure out how to live together in a good way," Story says. "To me, the most important part of that is how we are with the kids and, of course, how we are with each other, because that effects the kids, too, and so that's my main focus."
Silent prayers for world peace
Excitement builds as the time for silence draws near. Robby is a Rainbow elder, a respected member who has attended many gatherings. A slight man, he sits in his wheelchair in front of his tepee and recalls his first one.
"I was sitting together in silence with my daughter, and I was crying. There were tears all over my face for Mother Earth, and a sparrow landed on my foot, a little sparrow. That's the kind of thing that happens in silence."
Turtle Girl smiles as she explains what it's like to be among 20,000 people gathered silently in a meadow, praying for peace.
"It's kind of an interesting thing to stand in a circle when you can't see the other end, and you know you're all thinking about the same thing that we wish we could stop war and have a peaceful family - it always makes me cry."
As the sun rose high in the Santa Fe Forest on Independence Day, the Rainbow's prayer for peace was spreading. Across the Atlantic Ocean, a second Rainbow Gathering was taking place in a forest in Ukraine. At noon, the silence broke and people begin to sing as the youngest Rainbows led a parade across the meadow, signifying the bright promise of tomorrow in a world of peace.